For those who didn’t tune in this weekend to an episode of CTV’s W5 on “factory farming”, let me sum it up for you: according to the episode hog farmers are heartless, sadist wretches that abuse and mistreat all their animals.
While attacks and misinformation on and about farming practices aren’t rare, this particular program was one-sided, made sweeping generalizations and provided zero balance. It also featured hidden camera footage from an animal activist who worked at a Manitoba hog barn for three months last year. While some of the events in the clips are appalling and are not acceptable, much of what was shown was edited down so as to eliminate all context. A panel of industry experts has since explained what is occurring in each clip — taken in context, much of what was shown is much less sensational.
Let’s ignore for a moment that whomever filmed this footage should have stepped in immediately if they saw animal abuse occurring but did not, and instead focus on a larger issue — consumers have an incredibly warped sense of livestock production. I well and truly believe that the average consumer has forgotten or is blissfully unaware that animals must first die before becoming meat. Also, I get the sense that consumers choose to disregard the fact that animals have minds of their own — they will get hurt, scratched, cut and far worse. They will also get sick, and need to be humanely euthanized. They have certain behaviours (like biting at a rail, pawing, head shaking) at feeding time. Just like how our babies cry when we vaccinate them, piglets squeal at being handled or treated. But we still do it. Why? Because vaccinating or treating a sickness has a benefit worth the risk of a sore arm and a screaming infant — why would we expect any different from animals? Consumers, it seems, have an unreasonable expectation of animal husbandry, plain and simple.
Not all the things we do to animals (or ourselves and our children) in the name of health are pleasant, but we choose the least harmful way to do them. Yes, putting down a sow or calf is commonplace on the farm, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant or enjoyed. It’s still difficult, but farmers understand that allowing an animal to suffer is a far worse sin. Treating animals is important to keep them healthy. But these are animals, they aren’t handled daily, they aren’t pets. Anyone who has been around piglets knows that they will complain — loudly — when handled, even gently.
As an industry, agriculture invests heavily in research to develop scientifically-informed best management practices. Animal welfare is an important aspect of every livestock farm worth their salt. Are there those who mistreat their animals? Yes. Just like there are those who mistreat their pets. Should we hold them accountable? Absolutely. But is it reasonable to expect that livestock will never squeal, or get injured or have to be humanely euthanized? No.
It’s simply poor journalism that W5 did not include any balance in its program. As an industry, however, we also need to be available and offer up our side of the story perhaps before we’re even asked. There are shining examples of this — Farm and Food Care Ontario has virtual farm tours and responded to W5’s episode immediately. Manitoba’s Bruce D. Campbell Farm and Food Discovery Centre has hog production on full display for anyone who wants to learn more (yes, real live pigs!). Farmers need to use social media and blogs to share their story, even if it’s just in their own community, so that consumers understand that raising livestock is hard work, fraught with tough decisions but ultimately rewarding when done with respect and best management practices.
What do you think? How can agriculture share its story in a constructive way? Please leave a comment. Let’s talk about this. We need to.